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United Airlines Sustainable Innovation in Commercial Aviation

This blog is part of our series spotlighting leaders in the pursuit and development of Responsible Renewables projects. This series is being hosted in collaboration by Schneider Electric and Korn Ferry. For a background on responsible renewables, we encourage you to start with the introductory blog which explores the issues and opportunities.

shadow of plane flying over a beachAs we start the new year, we’re thrilled to continue shining a light on a new host of partners who lead their respective industries in responsible renewables efforts. By exploring the important work of these leaders and influencers, we also hope to continue providing key educational deep dives on the ever-changing landscape of responsible renewables.

Our first industry leader of 2024 should come as no surprise, as United Airlines has certainly developed a reputation for their focus on sustainability efforts. We sat down with Chief Sustainability Officer Lauren Riley to discuss how a major player in aviation like United Airlines approaches responsible renewables.

Lauren Riley from United AirlinesA certified Change Management Advanced Practitioner through Georgetown University, Riley was recognized as Business Insider’s 100 People Transforming Business.

Her 20-plus year consulting career demonstrates her commitment to high-level change management that yields not only operational but environmental benefits, which is a huge component of what she brings to United.

What led you into the world of sustainability and to your current role at United?

Prior to my role here at United, I was a consultant for more than 20 years, mostly in sustainability. What I like to tell folks is – there’s no one path to a career in sustainability because it can take many different shapes and forms. Sustainability education and initiatives, as well as our planet, changes daily and this industry is always changing so there is always opportunity to join in.

Sustainability was once treated as a peripheral aspect of businesses, focused on addressing immediate issues rather than being integrated as a forward–thinking, deeply ingrained corporate strategy.  It’s my job to think about what it means for a company like United to succeed in a future economy that is prioritizing low carbon – that’s the “problem” statement for all chief sustainability officers, I think. And this is where I draw on my history in consulting and facilitating learning, dialogue, and decision making across a multitude of stakeholders.

In my role, I must help our business to evolve and uncover sustainability initiatives while not changing the historical success rooted in charting financial metrics. The focus is financial, but now sustainability impacts finances in a big way.

There are very few industries that are “hard to abate,” meaning that they don't have the solutions commercially available today to really make sustainable differences. So (for commercial aviation), it's about building markets that don't exist today, identifying the technical solutions that we need, and then implementing them in a way that's successful and sustainable over the long term. For example, United made a commitment to achieve net-zero by 2050, but we won’t just rely on offsets. That’s less of a statement on whether offsets work and more of a statement on where United, as a leader of sustainability in commercial aviation, needs to spend its time, money, and resources to ensure that we act in the right places. We have to think about facilitating change within our operations; sustainable aviation fuels (“SAF”), electric and hydrogen aircrafts, how we operate on the ground, how we engage our value chain and how OEM is managed– it’s all connected.

And the final piece – what drew me to United – is how we disclose and then repeat the process consistently. At United, I have the opportunity to incubate this transition on behalf of an industry that has a long way to go. If we build it the right way from the beginning based on a foundation of integrity, I know that we will do this with success that can be mirrored for the industry.

What drives United’s commitment to these sustainable practices?

What’s super exciting regarding sustainability at United is that at its core, the conversation is around innovation. It’s remarkable because the technological innovation has now also been enabled by policy. This burgeoning growth comes from a shared desire in the ESG space to rapidly decarbonize, which is now supported through policy incentives such as the Inflation Reduction Act (which United helped to author), and the tax credits that are available for sustainable aviation fuel. The innovation for us is understanding what solutions we will need to decarbonize in a permanent capacity and then truly driving this roadmap to net-zero in all strategic areas of our business with the backing of our audit committees to accelerate our progress.

From this innovation, every new aircraft that United introduces into our fleet is about 20 to 25% more fuel efficient, which directly correlates to the amount of emissions reduced in the atmosphere. So, our fleet — the new aircrafts we introduce and those that we retire — is important. If we consider air traffic control and the way we fly, there are more direct routes of flight that are not currently supported by air traffic control that could enable more efficient flying and therefore lower emissions. That’s why I say we must maintain focus on this operational perspective alongside advancements in SAFs. These fuels are chemically identical to conventional jet fuel derived from fossil fuels. However, SAF is derived from renewable or organic feed stocks – think ethanol, or trash from your trash can, or even the cooking oil from the restaurant down the street; all of that can be converted into jet fuel and it emits up to 85% less carbon on a life cycle basis. This is an impactful reduction and it could be used in our engines that we have today. That being said, the challenge that we're looking at right now is that there's simply not enough SAF today. There are only two producers who create SAF in a commercial capacity and these producers have close to a couple 100 million gallons. For comparison, United needs 4 billion gallons and we’re just one airline. If other airlines want to join this effort, and I hope they do, then the demand will be even higher. We have to connect this back to our financials and figure out how we can make an impact at scale. Once we solve for all of that, I think we can have a truly remarkable transition for aviation as a whole – not just United, but the entire aviation industry.

On our side, we often work with smaller organizations to focus their sustainable efforts on making an impact in their local communities. With United’s scale and scope, your community is most of the world. How does United partner with global stakeholders to enact change in policies and make a difference at that scale?

That’s an important question. Our operations are global, spanning across 100 countries total, which also means a hundred or more different sets of regulations. There are emerging sustainability-related expectations in every pocket of the world, and it's not just regarding emissions but other things like single-use plastics, and electrification of ground equipment to name a few. There's a variety of factors that influence the umbrella of sustainability, and those are all really important developments. However, as a company, we have to strive for more alignment across our regions because the more regulations that we have to navigate, the harder it will be to meet our sustainability goals.

The intricacies of this topic were a huge motivator for us choosing to participate in COP27 for aviation. We have ICAO, which is the International Civil Aviation Organization and a sister organization within the UN to the group that established the Paris Accord. It recognizes that emissions are global for aviation because there's no cutoff point when emissions are from the US versus somewhere else when you're 35,000 feet in air. So, we have a lot of coordination going on under this UN special group, ICAO, to really make sure that we're looking holistically at aviation expectations for the entire aviation industry. The entities that are accountable are the countries under the UN, meaning 192 countries. I think overall it is a commitment to net-zero for the industry by 2050. This unified statement by all the country leaders and the industry together promising to work on policies, financing, technology, and all of the enablers you need to succeed together is critical to make progress.

Further, while we have to have a global focus, our local communities are equally as important to all of us at United. We’re actively thinking about how we are bringing forward new opportunities for everyone as we look at our transition plan to net-zero.

Currently, our pilot training program includes a commitment that 50% of our incoming student population will either be women or people of color, as we want our pilots to represent the global community we serve. In this industry that is typically men coming out of the military, or, frankly, those who can afford very expensive private pilot training, there is a stereotype of who a pilot is and what they look like that we want to challenge. And we're doing the same thing with our technicians, including a whole host of entrepreneur apprenticeship initiatives so that we can actually create opportunities as our business starts to shift. And to me, that's really important.

Finally, as education is our Responsible Renewables theme this year, does United have any other community outreach initiatives aimed at educating the public about  your vision and why it's important?

Yes! We have a number of partnerships with community based clean tech incubators in LA, San Francisco, Boston and Houston as well as Greentown Labs and many nonprofits we work with that come together to help stand up clean tech in the communities, including education. These passionate climate enthusiasts come together to figure out ways that they can share their passion and use United’s power to enable them to grow their businesses in a broad arena of climate impact. 

Education is so important because climate change is “science-y” and global warming is heavy and people don’t want to talk about fuels and gases when going on vacation and so we've launched a whole host of engagement initiatives, whether it's the products on board or collaborations like we have right now with Sesame Street where Oscar talks about his role as Chief Trash Officer. It's silly, but the whole point there is that it makes the topic approachable, educates on the right solutions that we need, and it leaves people with a smile on their face and on a topic that is typically quite burdensome for some folks, and we now have engagement that we have never seen before.

United is uniquely leaning into all sustainable approaches to establish appropriate expectations and develop the necessary infrastructure to facilitate a smooth transition. Lauren is so proud of her team and the integrity they bring to everything they do. We are equally as proud of the work United is doing to decarbonize rapidly as well!

Subscribe to our mailing list to join us as we expand on the topic of responsible renewables in a blog series that will feature conversations shaping the future of responsible renewables. Each month, we will publish a new blog spotlighting another important voice working to address responsible renewables, including developers, corporate buyers, community members, and NGOs.